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Hyperion Records

CDA67759 - Ravel & Debussy: String Quartets
Landscape (1915) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
© The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania, USA / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67759
Recording details: March 2009
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: January 2010
Total duration: 71 minutes 40 seconds

'The Dante Quartet give a full-blooded performance, with no false delicacy … the transition to the central section of the scherzo in Ravel's quartet fades to a whisper, as preparation for the sublime dream-world ahead' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The shifts of light and shade in Debussy's String Quartet are ear-catchingly etched in by the Dante Quartet … Ravel's Quartet is ushered in with an ethereal calm that nevertheless has sufficient fibre to sustain the first movement's burst of energy. The quiet musing of the slow movement is set in dramatic contrast with the fiery finale' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The two outstanding masterpieces of the genre by French composers … the Dantes are one of the finest newish quartets based in Britain … they are alive to every nuance of these ever-fascinating works' (The Sunday Times)

'A stroke of programming genius … the Dantes make the oddball central movement of Ravel's String Quartet resonate beautifully and offer an unusually tender, otherworldly account of the Debussy' (Classic FM Magazine)

'You will experience in the group's playing some of the most exquisite gradations between dynamic markings you've ever heard … that is just one example among hundreds that make this the most expressive reading I've ever heard … an award-deserving recording … this receives the highest recommendation possible' (Fanfare, USA)

'One of the UK's finest quartets. They find all manner of shading and delicacy in the Debussy; their Ravel is a miracle of feather-light tone and seamless phrasing … for sheer refinement, sweetness and unanimity of purpose these performances strike me as exceptional' (Financial Times)

'This is magical wonderland music, with the many available versions no competition' (Liverpool Daily Post)

'Rarement un quatuor a su faire preuve d'une telle souplesse de discours et d'une telle légèreté instrumentale; les Dante sont un soliste ou un orchestre, mais on oublie qu'ils sont quatre. Au-delà de cet excellent travail de quatuor, ils proposent une palette de couleurs étonnantes, jouant avec des camaïses d'une subtilité incroyable … rien que pour le Debussy, un choc, un vrai' (Classica, France)

Ravel & Debussy: String Quartets
Très modéré  [6'54]
Allegretto  [8'17]
Blues: Moderato  [5'20]
Très lent  [9'41]
Vif et agité  [5'04]

The Dante Quartet continue their award-winning exploration of the French string quartet with this disc which includes two of the greatest works of this genre.

Both quartets dazzled and disturbed at their first performances. Debussy’s fantastic, spiralling variations, resisting orthodox ‘development’ of ideas, is described as reminiscent of Monet’s in recording the variations of light on the façade of Rouen Cathedral. Traditionalist commentators were shocked, but the exotic beauty of the writing excited many, including the young Ravel. Ravel’s Quartet is to some extent an hommage to Debussy, but, typically, also a work of startling originality.

Also included is Ravel’s Violin Sonata No 2 in G major, an intriguing, jazz-influenced work, energetic but with a dark undertow of pain; written, as Ravel said, with the aim of ‘exploring the basic incompatibility of violin and piano’.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
After the Franco-Prussian War and the horrors of the Commune, there was a determination to show that France was not only free of the invader, but also once again a functioning entity. The foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871, with the motto ‘Ars Gallica’, was to provide an invaluable platform for the works of younger French composers. But, for whatever reason, amid the welter of French violin sonatas, piano trios and piano quartets written in the 1870s and ’80s, string quartets were in relatively short supply, certainly from the major composers. Possibly intimidated by the ghost of Beethoven, César Franck and Fauré did not venture to write one until they were sixty-eight and seventy-nine respectively (in 1890 and 1924) and for Debussy, and later Ravel, to enter this domain around the age of thirty was to court charges of presumption.

Before the first performance of the Debussy Quartet by the Ysaÿe Quartet on 29 December 1893, audiences at the Société Nationale had already heard Debussy’s cantata La damoiselle élue, of which one critic wrote prophetically ‘this subcutaneous injection may possibly produce dangerous eruptions among the young composers of the near future’. The Quartet too was to have a decisive influence, notably on Ravel. Some of the immediate responses from the critics were enthusiastic, but not those of Chausson, with whom Debussy was very friendly at the time. It is clear from a letter Debussy wrote to him on 5 February 1894 that Chausson liked things in the work which Debussy would rather had remained undetected, and that he found Debussy’s forms lacking in decorum: ‘I’ll write another one which will be for you, and I’ll try and bring some nobility to my forms’, responded Debussy, with just a hint of acid.

We can only guess as to exactly which parts of the Quartet Chausson objected to: the scherzo perhaps, full of flying pizzicati, and very probably a reminiscence of the gamelan he had heard at the 1889 Exposition; or indeed the very opening of the first movement, where an initially impassioned modal statement simply runs out of steam by the twelfth bar, to be succeeded by an apparently unrelated theme in a quite different mood. Chausson’s view was that Debussy did not roll up his sleeves and really get to work on his material—a similar response to that from Vincent d’Indy, who later told Georges Auric that both the Debussy and Ravel quartets were no more than ‘jolis morceaux pour quatuor à cordes’.

But then Debussy always resisted orthodox ‘development’ of his ideas, much preferring to exercise a looser ‘fantaisie’ through free variation, as in the transformations of the Quartet’s opening theme, which itself owes something to Grieg’s first String Quartet, also in G minor. To label these transformations ‘cyclic’, in the manner of Franck, is to miss something of the Debussyan essence. The theme does not, for example, culminate in any grand peroration like the one in Franck’s Symphonic Variations, unkindly dubbed by Alfred Cortot ‘l’embourgeoisement du thème’. Debussy’s approach is nearer to Monet’s in recording the variations of light on the façade of Rouen Cathedral. Contemporary critics noted that in the slow movement the Russian influence was alive and well, and it could be that this whiff of exoticism struck Chausson as unpatriotic.

When, in 1905, the thirty-year-old Ravel was excluded by the jury from the final round of the Prix de Rome composing competition, much of the ammunition fired on his behalf in the ensuing ‘affaire’ was propelled by an appreciation of his String Quartet. Its patent mastery of form and technique meant, as one supporter said, that Ravel was honouring the competition by entering.

The work had had its first performance a year earlier, on 5 March 1904. Whatever academic failure lay behind him, and indeed in front of him, after this performance he could no longer be written off as just another salon composer. He had ‘arrived’. And it’s worth noting that when a second edition of the score was published in 1910, he changed a few details of the texture but nothing of the substance.

In 1904 he could of course still be accused of being a Debussyste, and would be for a number of years yet. The charge, in respect of the Quartet, does carry some weight, not least because the months around its first performance mark the high-water mark of the two composers’ friendship. For a century Debussy has been quoted as begging Ravel not to change a note of the work. The truth, now vouchsafed through the publication of Debussy’s Correspondance, is rather more prosaic, if no less interesting: what Debussy in fact begged was that Ravel shouldn’t ask the players to play more quietly, as he threatened to after the final rehearsal, but should bear in mind that an audience mops up sound—though the viola could be encouraged to be a bit more discreet.

Ravel proclaims his individual take on the medium from the very start. The curiously static feel of the opening paragraph must have upset some older listeners who were accustomed to greater assertiveness at this point in a sonata movement, and for them perhaps the refreshing triplets of the second subject did not come a bar too early. But the interval of the falling fourth and the rising bass line mark the first theme as essentially Ravelian and both features help in unifying the work, as does his attraction to modal harmonies and outlines. Each of the four movements begins with the note A, linking the tonic F major to D minor and A minor; the orthodox dominant C major is hardly heard from beginning to end. The first movement is cast in traditional sonata form with a peaceful coda, but on the textural level can be seen differently: the composer Gerard McBurney has spoken of it as a game of pairs, ‘like one of those folk dances where, phrase by phrase, you swing from one partner to the next … and you never quite know whose hand you’re going to be holding in a few bars’ time.’

The scherzo thrives on the opposition between plucked and bowed sounds and, in the middle section, between steady and fluctuating tempos. If the overall conception owes something to the scherzo of Debussy’s Quartet, Ravel’s full, almost orchestral textures are his own—it seems he saw the medium objectively, uncluttered by any notion of it as the accepted repository of pure inward thoughts. The cello phrase that opens the slow middle section, later taken up by the first violin in octaves, is related to the first four notes of the first movement, but not too obviously so.

In the slow movement Ravel manages to integrate into his own language harmonies that owe something to César Franck, and from the start reappearances of the opening phrase from the first movement now proclaim his cyclic intentions more plainly. If these initially sound extraneous to the argument, by the end of the movement Ravel has succeeded in integrating them so that the reference in the final three bars has the force of a conclusive statement.

In the finale he shows total assurance in handling the asymmetry of five beats in the bar (possibly deriving from his love of Russian music) and in balancing themes against ostinato patterns. In effect he continues the rhythmic games of the second movement, replacing the 6/8–3/4 contrast with one of 5/8 (5/4)–3/4. The area of 5/8 (5/4) is characterized by the sound of fast repeated notes, while that of 3/4 carries the new versions of the two themes of the first movement. These themes are now less concerned with tension between each other than with counteracting the subversive powers of the quintuple rhythm. The coda compresses the rhythmic struggle, and triple metre wins by a whisker.

For both Debussy and Ravel, originality was important: Debussy’s motto was ‘toujours plus loin’ (‘ever further’) and Ravel was fond of exclaiming about his own discoveries that ‘personne n’avait fait ça’ (‘nobody has done that before’). If Ravel’s Quartet is to some extent a homage to Debussy’s, there are enough differences between the two works to make charges of plagiarism untenable. Similarly, whereas a superficial glance at the two men’s violin sonatas of 1923–7 and 1917 reveals a pair of three-movement works in G major, they are in fact concerned with utterly different materials and techniques.

Ravel said that his aim was to explore the basic incompatibility of violin and piano, and this lends an uneasy quality to much of the music. The long melodic line that starts the first movement looks, on paper, ‘romantic’. But Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, the violinist to whom he dedicated the sonata, felt it was suited rather to an oboe or a clarinet and spoke of the ‘indifference’ it requires. In any case it is soon interrupted by an angry, snapping little phrase in the piano’s left hand—‘You needed to hear Ravel, with his nervous fingers rather square at the ends, attacking this passage!’

In the central ‘Blues’, Ravel gave vent to his enthusiasm for jazz, as in the opera L’enfant et les sortilèges and the two piano concertos. He wanted the opening piano chords to sound like the plucking of metal strings and the instrument to maintain an implacable rhythm, against which the violin can indulge in freer slides and wailings. On his American tour in 1928, he used this movement to try and convince the critics that jazz was the way forward for American music, and couldn’t understand why they insisted in regarding it as unrespectable. Possibly they were aware of the undertow of pain in the movement. If so, the unrelenting finale only confirmed that this was not a typical work of the Silly Twenties. An earlier version of this movement had been more lyrical but, according to Ravel, not right for the work … and so ended in the fire. The American audiences did not know that Ravel was paying them a compliment by way of emulating Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote of the climax to his poem The Raven: ‘Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely enfeebled them, so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.’ Are beauty and truth synonymous, as Keats maintained? Or can energy and virtuosity be enough? Whatever the answer, for Ravel, as for us, the apparently effortless confidence of the String Quartet must have seemed a long way in the past.

Roger Nichols © 2010

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